Monday 12 October This has been a very challenging week. Over the weekend there have been many calls between Essex MPs and our local public health team about the rising cases of COVID-19 across Essex. I check the latest data. Over the past 11 days in Chelmsford we have gone from 15 cases per 100,000 to nearly 60, so the infection rate has been doubling every five and a half days. The current measures to control the disease are not working, the County Council is going to recommend to the Health Secretary that we move to a higher tier of measures. I agree we must do more to protect health, but I am also concerned about the economic impact.
There is good news – a new grant for the culture sector has been announced, including a large investment is being put into Chelmsford theatres. Our theatres are much loved by audiences and performers and this grant will help ensure we can all enjoy them again in the future.
Nearly everyone is wearing a mask as I walk into the House of Commons to answer questions from MPs in the monthly “Education Questions” session. MPs sit late into the night debating the new Agriculture Bill. It is gone 10 pm when we finish voting and it is raining as I walk home. Steps 11,857
Tuesday 13th October In the Department for Education I catch up with representatives of pre-schools and nurseries in an online call. Early years education is so important for young children and sets the building blocks for learning. The good news is that attendance is now back up at over 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels. It is so important to keep schools and pre-schools open, even if we do need further lockdown measures.
Back to the House of Commons where an MP is proposing a new Bill to ensure every child gets a school breakfast and then to Westminster Hall where I answer a debate on equalities, MPs are concerned by the data showing that white boys from disadvantaged areas have the worst outcomes in education. I explain the work we are doing to close this gap and encourage all schools to use the £1billion catch-up fund that we have set aside. The day is peppered with votes throughout the afternoon and evening. It is again gone 10 pm when we finish voting, this time on the Fisheries Bill. Steps 14,711
Wednesday 14th October Today is the day when the Health Ministers and the Chief Medical Officer will decide whether to move Essex into the new Higher Tier for Corona virus measures. It is also Adoption Week and we are launching a new nationwide campaign to encourage more people to consider whether they could become adoptive parents. There are 2,400 children waiting for adoption, all of whom are under five years old, but we only have 1,800 adopters. I do a series of interviews for regional and specialist media to support the campaign.
At PMQs Keir Starmer calls for a new “circuit break” taking the whole country back into a full lock down for at least a fortnight. This seems extremely unreasonable for those parts of the country where there is a very low level of Covid. More votes throughout the day – even though we are wearing masks all these votes mean that MPs are inevitably in close contact with many different people. I email all those I am due to meet in Chelmsford on Friday and suggest that we meet outside or online as if I have picked up the virus, I don’t want to be a vector back into the constituency.
Essex MPs have been called to meet the Health Minister first thing in the morning, and the WhatsApp messages keep buzzing late into the evening as we exchange thoughts. Steps 11,020
Thursday 15th October The Essex MPs meet with the Health Minister and leading public health doctors for the region. They explain that Essex and London are moving into Tier 2, this will mean restricting contact between households indoors. Cases across Essex are rising exponentially, and they are concerned about the county’s vulnerability particularly with the numbers of London commuters and the very large numbers of care homes in Essex. Whilst I support the decision for health reasons, I also raise the economic impact and suggest we need to look again at support, particularly for the hospitality sector.
In normal times Thursday would be a day for ministerial visits to see what is happening across the country, but due to Covid I am doing more visits online. I meet the Family Hub team from Westminster City Council and learn how their innovative service is bringing schools, GPs, health visitors, social workers and voluntary organisations together to wrap support around vulnerable families. It’s a model I would like to see replicated.
We have our weekly stock take with all officers working on children’s policy and then the afternoon becomes peppered with votes. I meet online with the National Association for Deaf Children and the Guide Dogs for the Blind. They introduce me to some very brave deaf and blind children who tell me about their experiences during Covid and their challenges with online learning. They make some very practical and sensible suggestions to improve the accessibility of technology which I promise to raise with tech companies. Work continues late into the evening answering some of the many questions that are coming from constituents on the Tier 2 measures, especially from grandparents about informal childcare and caring for vulnerable older people. In Tier 2 families are able to set up a “Childcare Bubble” with another household so that family members can continue to care for children under 14, or they can set up a “Support Bubble” to care for a single person living alone. Steps 11,211
Friday 16th October My Chelmsford day starts with a constituency surgery, this week back on the phone as I want to help minimise contacts between households. In the High Street I check in with some of the shop owners and stall holders to see how they are bearing up.
There is good news from Anglia Ruskin University. There are record numbers of students studying to become doctors, nurses, midwifes and paramedics. Most students are working on-line and in intense Covid-secure face to face blocks of four hour learning sessions. Only two students have tested positive for Covid and they had not been on the campus before developing symptoms so we have not had any student outbreaks locally. I am taken to the car park at the front of the University where in the next few days a walk-in testing centre will be constructed that will be available for students, staff and residents of Chelmsford.
Over to Melbourne where I check in with some of the local shop-keepers. I keep socially distance, wear a mask and chat from the door. The Post Office staff tell me they are concerned that people are bringing their parcels of Covid home test kits into the shop to hand them in at the counter. Please don’t do this as it puts the staff at risk, just pop the envelope back in the post box outside.
I pop into the playground of the outstanding Tanglewood Nursery where parents are dropping children for the afternoon session. There is a massive bubble machine blowing in the breeze and songs from the Jungle Book are playing, huge smiles from the children and Debs the fabulous Headteacher tells me they have had over 180 2-4 year-olds enjoying the nursery today.
In Galleywood, at Thriftwood School for autistic students, I sit in the playground getting an update from the Headteacher whilst children play and learn. Lockdown has been very challenging for many children and families with disabilities, but I am struck by how happy and calm the Thriftwood pupils are. The staff have worked so hard to support families and reassure children. I do an on-line catch-up with Columbus School, which supports those with more intense disabilities. It is good to hear that nearly all their pupils are back learning, and more returning next week.
Before the shops close, I check in with more local businesses in the City Centre from the shop doors. Thank you to everyone who took time to talk today and gave me their updates. From estate agent to barber, beauty clinic to launderette, shoe shop to hairdresser, it is so important that we support our local businesses at this challenging time.